Willie D

Free Blues Man in Chicago

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By Bonni McKeown

Since he came to Chicago at age 20, singer "Willie D" Freeman has lived on on the West Side. Born in Bentonia, Mississippi in 1944, he rode up to the Windy City to stay with his sister at Racine and Cabrini: "I wanted to experience other parts of the world." He lives in Austin today.

Willie knew he had a good singing voice. Down south, his older brother had played some guitar and bass, and their mother declared, "If you let Williie sing, the two of you could make some money."  Willie also sang sometimes in the church choir.

Willie wasn't so keen about working in the cotton fields. As a teenager his mother warned him to be careful, after he asserted himself to one of the white wagon drivers who'd called her and the young workers impolite names.  Willie went and got a job in a sawmill, where he was able to earn an entire cotton worker's weekly pay in only one day. So he was confident he could do the same in Chicago. 

Relatives got him a job cleaning offices and equipment at Washington and Halsted.  Later he drove delivery trucks, bringing beer to restaurants. In a downtown alley, he fought off enormous rats. "I picked up a brick and killed a 12 inch long rat," said Willie. "A man saw me and was so glad, he paid me $10." 

In Chicago, he started going to Michelle's Lounge at Lotus and Madison, where Johnny Christian was singing with his band, the Playboys--often Stan and Vern Banks on keyboard and guitar, Bald Head Pete on Drums, and Big Pete on bass.  Many different musicians, including Johnny B. Moore, Vance Kelly, and Willie Davis, played with Johnny Christian, who toured the Midwest and had many fans all over the West Side.

Willie said Johnny "was about the smoothest and coolest guy in the entertainment business." He loved hearing Johnny sing "Gonna leave in the morning, don't worry about tomorrow."  http://youtu.be/MQeWO_bI77g

In West and South Side tradition, guest singers and musicians are called to try their chops on stage late in the evening.  Johnny encouraged Willie to step up to the mic. His first number was one he still sings:  "Woke Up This Morning," a B.B. King favorite with a rhumba beat.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ri2FheIAP-A

When Johnny's health declined and he couldn't perform as much, he urged Willie D to put a band together:  "You sing your heart out," Willie recalls Johnny telling him. "I never know you to back up off a song. You get deep into it."  Johnny Christian died in 1993. 

Over the last 20 years, Willie has carried on his mentor's singing tradition in West Side clubs including the Starlite at Fifth and Pulaski with Jerry Tyrone and Johnny Dollar; and at soul/blues singer Tyrone Davis's club at Bloomingdale and Central, accompanied by three horn players which added to the souful sound.

 "Once Tyrone Davis, Cicero Blake, Lee 'Shot' Williams and Garland Greene, I think it was, were doing a show down in Dolton. They had trouble with their PA and called me to bring mine. By the time I drove down to the south suburbs, they'd gotten their sound system working.  But Tyrone gave me the money for showing up. He told their security guy to watch my car, and asked me to come on in and see the show. That was nice of him, I appreciated that."

Willie started performing one of his signature songs, McKinley Mitchell's "End of the Rainbow," after hearing it on the radio. Johnny sang it, but you don't hear it done often by other Chicago singers. Maybe because nobody can touch Willie. 

In this video, Billy "Che" Brooks introduces a  summer blues program at the BBF social service agency, saying "blues speaks to our pain."  "Rainbow" is a minor-key tale about finding no pot of gold, and going back home empty handed. Hearing Willie sing it, you may end up with tears in your eyes, but feeling so good!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dd8gmwVBEg

 

For more West Side Blues stories, click the author's name above.

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