Sunday, May 19, 2019

Old Time Ben Payton


Most people, when they see me, think I've been playing blues guitar all my life." 
Ben Wiley Payton, Greenwood's own master of traditional acoustic country blues, sounds like a player raised on the Delta's music with his scratchy bass vocal delivery and agile bending of blues chords. 

An accomplished musician with two CDs of original material under his belt and performances in some of the most vaunted venues in the country, including the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center in Washington, Payton has made a late-life career preaching the gospel of the blues to the initiated and uninitiated alike. But Payton — who was born in 1948 in the hills around Coila and who lived in and around Greenwood until he was 13 — took the long way home to Mississippi and the blues, coming back to them only after he'd made a career in Chicago playing with house bands for R&B, soul and jazz acts, and after passing nearly two decades outside the music industry altogether. For this 70-year-old bluesman, discovering the intricacy of blues fingerpicking depended upon going far from home and, finally, returning.

A warm man, tall and soft-spoken with a big barrel chest, Peyton has dimples that spread when he smiles. That's most of the time. He speaks slowly, with concentration, relating the details of his circular life and career. After moving to Chicago with his mother in the 1960s, Payton, in the 1970s, enjoyed the life of a musician in a house band at Chicago nightclubs, backing now legendary acts such as Bobby Rush and Otis Clay, banging out chords on an electric guitar. 

But by the 1980s, when disco music infiltrated those clubs, the chances of making a living playing live music dried up. "There were no house bands anymore, just DJs," Payton said. "It really wasn't any money in music." Payton left his performing career in the '80s and '90s to raise a family and pursue other interests, including Bible studies at the Moody Bible Institute. He studied African-American history after settling down to a domestic life, and he learned the history of one of the most influential gospel songs ever written, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." "The writer of that song Thomas Dorsey, they didn't want him to sing that song in church," Payton said. "The main reason was he was a bluesman, a blues piano player. He had that low-life association." Payton concluded that no matter what your skills —whether you're a good janitor or a good construction worker or a good blues musician — "glorifying Him through what you do, that's what it's all about." He started a church in Chicago in 1983 that closed in 2003 because of big-city parking problems and dwindling membership. His marriage busted up, and he found himself at loose ends. Still a Mississippi boy at heart, Payton decided it was time to come home, where he would be born, yet again. 

Payton clearly remembers his first musical awakening when he was a second-grade boy, living in the Delta. "It was a homecoming parade," he said "There, down, the street, came this big marching band from Tchula." 

Payton went home, found a big can and two sticks and, "Boy I was in the band!" That fascination took a back-seat to basketball for a time, but when Payton's mother moved him to Chicago as a teenager, he became the bass singer for a doo-wop group, a cappella singers who serenaded from a street corner. "That was my first time performing," he said He started taking guitar lessons from a retired school-teacher, John House, and learned enough from chord books to land a gig with a house band at a few Chicago night-clubs, including Peyton Place, where Otis Clay played regularly. "I met a lot of fellows through a friend of mine who knew blues musicians," he said. "I played for whoever was playing. The entertainment was always switching" Adept at the chords and beats that drove soul and rhythm and blues songs, Payton's versatility and open ear led him to play with a number of jazz musicians, but he hadn't mastered fingerpicking yet. Then came Morocco. In the late '60s, jazz pianist Randy Weston recruited Payton for an extended stay at the African Rhythm Club in Tangiers. Payton and his band played soul, but he became a fan of the acoustic musicians of North Africa during his time off. He absorbed the sounds these musicians made with their subtle instruments — the oud, a watermelon-shaped, four-stringed instrument with a long neck, accompanied by the delicate snap of finger drumming. "I learned how small instruments could make such a beautiful, welcoming sound," Payton said. It's a lesson he remembered when his musical career went fallow and, 20 years later, when he returned to Mississippi and his true musical roots. 

"When I came back to Mississippi, I spent time with Steve LaVere and Steve Cheeseborough, learning the licks of the old country blues players," Payton said. LaVere, a Grammy-winning music producer and blues promoter who lived in Greenwood until he died in December 2015, burned CDs for Payton of Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson. Payton, who had played in church and dabbled a little in folk over the past 20 years, had switched from electric to acoustic and played at LaVere's downtown restaurant, The Blue Parrot, while Payton expanded his blues repertoire. "It was hard," Payton said. "You don't just learn it like that You're learning to move chords with one finger holding in one place while the other plays a melody" Payton practiced, played and learned, relying on his stage presence and warm vocals as his individual picking style emerged. He lived in Jackson, played at gigs wherever he could find them, including in Greenwood, and developed a reputation as a serious blues player. In 2009, he cut his first CD of original tunes, Diggin' Up Old Country Blues, which was well-received by critics and received wide exposure over a blues station on Sirius XM Radio. He began hitting the festivals. He played the Chicago Blues Festival and the King Biscuit Festival He got gigs teaching acoustic country blues to music students at Boston's Berklee College of Music and at the Centrum music camp in Port Townsend, Washington. He was chosen to represent the state of Mississippi at the American Folklife Center's Homegrown Concert Series at the Library of Congress and took his act to the Kennedy Center. In 2015, he recorded his second CD of original tunes, adapting musical styles from traditional bluesmen and modifying them with his own unique style. 

Recorded at Mississippi Valley State University's B.B. King Recording Studio, Caught Up in the Blues reflects Payton's hunger to keep learning and to honor a range of musicians. The first track, "All Alone Blues," mimics the driving bass line of Lead Belly. Josh White's staccato guitar groove is evident on track two, "Beautiful Woman." "Amanda" borrows some of those haunting Moroccan chords, while "Fairy Tale Blues" gives a nod to Blind Lemon Jefferson and "New Plan" to Mississippi John Hurt. The last two songs on the CD, "Long Journey" and "Song of Strength," are gospel-influenced. The new CD, just recently pressed, traveled with Payton to the Chicago Blues Festival in early June, where he played for an audience he estimates at about 1,000 in the Visit 
Mississippi Juke Joint tent.

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