Cary Baker first met Blind Arvella Gray almost 35 years ago, when he was a budding blues enthusiast attending high school in Wilmette. "I was 15 and one day my father took me down to Maxwell Street," he says. "There were a lot of street musicians playing at the time, but as soon as we happened upon Arvella, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was something about him that harkened back to field hollers and country blues, stuff you didn't hear even back then."
Gray died in 1980, and Baker, now 49, is working as a music publicist in LA. But he still takes inspiration from that visit to Maxwell Street, and to inaugurate his new label, Conjuroo Recordings, he's reissuing Gray's lone album, The Singing Drifter, which has been out of print since a pressing of 1,000 copies sold out back in 1973. "It's pretty fitting," says Baker, "since he was the one who really fueled my passion for the blues."
Gray was born in Somerville, Texas, in 1906, but thanks to his penchant for embellishment, not much else about his life is known for certain. His real name was either James or Walter Dixon, and he claimed that in the 1920s he'd worked for a circus and driven a getaway car for Detroit's notorious Purple Gang, among other things. He lost his sight in the early 30s, but it's hard to be sure how--sometimes he said he'd been hit with a shotgun blast during a botched grocery-store holdup, sometimes that he'd been wounded in a fight over a woman at a brothel. Apparently the incident, whatever it was, also cost him the first two fingers on his fret hand. "That's why he was able to play with a slide, but couldn't do intricate fingerpicking stuff," says Baker. "But whenever I asked him about how it had happened, he told the story differently every time."
Gray picked up the guitar sometime after he became blind, and by 1946 he was a fixture on Maxwell Street, often playing with his sister, who sang under several names, including Granny Clara Jenkinsbey. Baker returned to Maxwell Street three weeks after his first trip and made many more visits in the months to come. He discovered that Gray had barely been mentioned in the Chicago press. "So I did an interview, typed up the story, and sent it to the Reader," he says. Publisher Bob Roth accepted the piece for the paper's 11th issue, which came out on January 7, 1972. Peter Bogdanovich, who'd just directed The Last Picture Show, was on the cover. "I think [Roth] paid me 50 bucks," says Baker, "and that made me feel very rich at the time."
Gray had self-released three singles in the mid-60s and been featured on a few compilations, but at that point he hadn't put out an LP of his own and was willing to accept help from anyone who wanted to give it--even a suburban teenager. Baker knew of a Wilmette label called Birch Records, owned by Dave Wylie, that specialized in prewar country artists, including veterans of WLS's National Barn Dance like Patsy Montana and Lulu Belle & Scotty. "So I rode my bike over there one day and asked him if he wanted to record Blind Arvella Gray," says Baker.
Wylie already knew about Gray--he'd seen him perform at the University of Chicago's first folk festival in 1961, on a bill that included Elizabeth Cotton and the New Lost City Ramblers. "He was a nonprofessional in the company of professionals, and he acquitted himself very well," says Wylie. "He was not trained on the guitar, he just strummed it--or as the New York Times noted in their review, he 'clanged savagely' on it. But by the time Cary approached me about him, he'd taken some lessons from [fellow street singer] Blind Jim Brewer and gotten a lot better."
Wylie agreed to finance and release an album, and in late September '72 he and Baker drove Gray to a studio in Harvey. "We pulled an all-nighter, with Arvella recording from about eight until three or four in the morning," says Baker. Gray laid down 15 tracks, both originals and adaptations of traditional material, and 11 ended up on The Singing Drifter--including "John Henry," which he'd made his signature tune. "He'd play that song all day--sometimes that's all he'd play, no matter when you caught up with him," says Baker, laughing. "He played it so much that a lot of people actually thought his name was John Henry."
Baker kept in touch with Gray sporadically through the 70s, once booking him at a coffeehouse while at college in De Kalb. "But he really didn't play a lot of stage gigs," says Baker. "He was a true street singer." In fact Gray became a minor tourist attraction late in his life. "There were always a bunch of Europeans, fans from England, Sweden, from all over, watching him," says Baker. "They would interview him and photograph him all the time."
Wylie approached Gray in 1980 about reissuing The Singing Drifter, but Gray thought his playing had improved and persuaded Wylie that they should record a new album instead. The organizers of the University of Chicago Folk Festival also contacted Gray that year about performing at a reunion show to celebrate the fest's upcoming 20th anniversary. But Gray fell ill and died before either project could come to fruition. Baker wrote his obituary for Living Blues magazine.
In 1984, Baker moved to Los Angeles and went to work for IRS Records. In the mid-90s he founded the PR company Baker/Northrop, and last year he moved on to start a new firm called Conqueroo. Wylie, who was working for the Marshall Field's books department, stopped releasing new material on Birch in the early 80s, though he continued to re-press old titles and license them to reissue labels like Bear Family; he retired from Field's in 2003. Meanwhile Gray's scant recorded output became increasingly hard to find--only six of his songs had ever been released on CD, including two on the 1999 sound track disc for a 1964 Maxwell Street documentary called And This Is Free--and by 2000, copies of his LP were fetching more than $100 apiece when they turned up on eBay. "One day last fall I thought, You know, no one has ever reissued The Singing Drifter, and someone really should," says Baker. "I should. But I didn't have a label. But I've worked in the record business 21 years and knew enough people to get one started." To get Gray's album out on CD, he and his wife, Sharon Bell, launched Conjuroo Recordings last month.
Wylie owned the rights to the music, but Baker secured them with a brief phone call. To assemble the reissue, the two used the acetate reference discs from the 1972 session--the master tapes, which Wylie had given to Gray, were lost after he died. They decided to drop one instrumental from the LP version and add the four tracks, mostly gospel standards, that'd been left off the original pressing. Both men contributed liner notes and remembrances of Gray.
The disc is already available through www.conjuroo.com, and it'll be in stores in early August. For Baker it's the culmination of a long relationship with Gray and his music. "He became like my project," he says. "I knew he had his limitations--his playing was anything but slick. But there was something just wondrously pure about what he did, and that's always stayed with me."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Marc Pokempner.