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Drink Small plays at his 83rd birthday party.

Arts: The (blues) doctor is in

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Blues guitarist Drink Small was late for his concert Saturday at Hobcaw Barony’s Kimbel Lodge, and Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis was experiencing some déja vu.

Otis and a classmate at Dreher High in Columbia, Sam E. McCuen, started booking bands through a business they named SEMBO Enterprises in the 1960s. Small, one of their clients, was notoriously late for rehearsals. Otis said he and McCuen were always worried about Small missing a gig. It was actually a relief Saturday to learn that Small’s driver had gotten lost in Myrtle Beach. The Blues Doctor was on the way. He arrived pretty soon after his show was scheduled to start.

Small’s drummer and bass player helped him up the ramp and into the lodge’s back door. At age 83, Small has inherited a family blindness trait and looked feeble as he reached for his canvas chair. His assistants arranged the microphone stand and put his guitar, Geraldine, in his hands.

Small’s fingers touched the strings and a strong basso profondo voice reminded people in the audience they had come to see a legend. “Some of ya’ll been knowing me since I was a young man,” Small said. “That has been a long time. Even though I’m sick, I can pick.”

Drink Small was a mainstay at fraternity parties at the University of South Carolina in the ’60s and ’70s. “I played some songs so dirty, it makes a skunk stand up,” he said. Those lyrics are missing from his biography written by Gail Wilson-Giarratano and sold at Hobcaw Saturday. Small said he didn’t want children to read them, but they represent one piece of a life Small made singing the blues his own way. “I was always a God-sent child,” he said. “I ain’t got nothing, but I am worth something.”

Small calls his snippets of wisdom Drinkisms. “Some of Drink’s knowledge, some of his wisdom, a little bit of rhythm and that will give you a Drinkism,” he said. “If you think you can beat me talking, you better get to walking.”

Small began to play his guitar and sing, freelancing his way through “Bishopville Is My Hometown” while the drummer and bass player followed along. “I been around long enough,” he said, “and I’m as determined as Strom Thurmond.”

Concert organizer Linda Ketron and her CLASS helpers couldn’t help themselves as they danced in the little space remaining in the back of Kimbel Lodge while Small performed. “He’s the first rap artist,” Roz Breit said.

Small calls his lyrical mixture “slanguage” and can recall material he performed in road houses and jazz festivals alike. He’s been near the top of the world, performing in New York City, Toronto, Atlanta and New Orleans. He was beloved in Europe. But Small was afraid of flying and felt an obligation to stay close to home and take care of his mother. The good times always dried up. His biography says he often trusted the wrong people, like the nightclub owner in Pensacola, Fla., who vanished when it was time to pay for a long night’s performance. With his guitar and suitcase in hand, Small hitchhiked back to Columbia and more hard times. He sold fishing worms out of his back yard between engagements.

The blues, he said, don’t come from having it easy. “You can’t play the blues till you’ve lived the blues,” he told his biographer. “I’m blind, I’m broke, got nothing in the pocketbook and been used by a whole lot of crooks. Now write that in the book.”

Small alters the lyrics and the music in his songs from one performance to another. One musician noticed he used 14 blues guitar techniques during a night. Self-taught, Small has borrowed from everywhere. He’s incorporated gospel, beach, jazz, country and bluegrass in a style he called “cross-up Piedmont.” The South Carolina Arts Commission helped finance a record in 1975 called “I’m Gonna Shag My Blues Away” at a time when young black performers were rejecting beach music and the shag for its whites-only image.

Small’s musical gumbo is hard to categorize. If he had stayed a pure blues man like B.B. King, he could have made more money but been a slave to success. But rich is better than poor. “Rich people got the blues because they are trying to keep the money, poor people got the blues because they are trying to get some money, and Drink Small got the blues because I ain’t got no money,” he said.

Small’s 1988 album “The Blues Doctor Live & Outrageous” is considered by blues historians the ultimate Drink Small album for its marvelous guitar work. It was nominated for a prestigious W.C. Handy Award. In 1990 he was presented the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, the state’s highest honor for lifetime achievement in the traditional arts. In 1999 he was inducted into the S.C. Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame. In 2015 he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s the highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

Small’s biggest regret is that he didn’t have enough commercial success to care for his mother as he would have liked. She died in 1988, before he was recognized as South Carolina’s greatest blues guitar player.

“He has a resilience,” his biographer Giarratano said. “Others gave up, but Drink persevered. He didn’t just do it when it went well, he dedicated himself with a resilience few others embrace. He told me, ‘It’s in me; I don’t have a choice.’ That is why we love him.”

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