Listening To The Deacon

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"Long live the blues" are the fitting last words in Melvyn "Deacon" Jones' autobiography, 40 YEARS WITH THE BLUES LEGENDS. Jones has spent his life playing the blues, first as a trumpet player, then on the electric organ, backing up the likes of Baby Huey, Curtis Mayfield, Freddie King and John Lee Hooker. It's been a good life, but a tough one, fighting poverty, drink, exploitation and the rigors of the road every step of the way. Jones' struggle is the struggle of just about every artist in the world who can't quite make it to the top rung of his profession--even though he knows he deserves to be up there.

"I guess the only reason that I haven't given in is because I don't know how to quit," the keyboardist explains at one point. "I'm sort of like a Timex watch; I take a licking, but I keep on ticking. I just hope and pray that one day the sun will shine on Deacon Jones and I'll finally get lucky and hit it big. It seems that every time I'm near the top, something goes wrong and I fall down again."

Deacon offers a unique perspective on the blues world. Most books dealing with it are written by its stars--B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard, Willie Dixon. They look down on the action the way generals look down on war, from a safe vantage point. Deacon, though, has been in the trenches all his life. Yes, he's played with many of the greats, made dozens of records, written a slew of songs--but he barely has a dime to show for it. Even when he played Madison Square Garden with John Lee Hooker, appearing before 25,000 screaming fans, he was paid a sideman's stipend, a big $35 for a night's work.

Don't get the idea that Deacon feels sorry for himself. Although he still scuffles to make ends meet, he knows he's had a life rich, if not in money, then in experience and artistic satisfaction. The joy of playing the music he loves sustains him, exalts him. He can take pride too in the knowledge that most of his peers respect and admire him--greats like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Doctor John and Willie Dixon.

It was Dixon who once told him, back in the 80s when Deacon was touring with Hook, "Deacon, give in, give out, but don't you ever give up."

Deacon has taken that advice. He gigs around L.A. (mostly at Babe's & Ricky's in Leimert Park), goes on trips for sideman's money, puts out his own CDs, and gets the occasional booking as a headliner, such as at the recent Bayou Festival in Long Beach. The three-day event, a fundraiser for the Comprehensive Child Development organization, featured a slew of Cajun, Zydeco and Blues stars (Brian Jack & The Zydeco Gamblers, Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie, among others), but Deacon torched them all with his 1 1/2hr-long Sunday night set.

(The Festival also offered a Mardi Gras parade, dance and cooking workshops, food stalls serving a variety of gumbos, ribs, crawfish and jambalaya, arts & crafts, and much more. Highly recommended! For information about next year's fund-raiser, contact CCD at 2545 Pacific Avenue, Long Beach, CA 90806).

"I hope the book adds to the history of the blues," Deacon continues. "I have no ax to grind and have left out the names of people mostly when I don't have good things to say. I don't want to embarass anyone or get back at anyone. I just tell it the way it was those many years. I hope that, if nothing else, you'll understand what they mean when they say that you must live the blues to play the blues. Your instrument can't sound like authentic blues unless it's been in the pawn shop. The more it's been pawned, the better it sounds. Long live the blues."

And long live the men and women who play the blues.

40 YEARS WITH THE BLUES LEGENDS can be ordered from Nile Lotus Records, 1449 Point View St., LA, CA. 90035. A hdbnd copy costs $23.95 (including insured shipping). Call (323) 965-2776 or visit

P.S. It's no secret that there are thousands more musicians like Deacon Jones who not only play for low wages but have no health care. But it comes as a shock to learn that most nurses are in the same boat, a case in point being the nurses at Cedars Sinai, the famed and affluent hospital in W. Hollywood. For the past 25 years the staff nurses have been petioning their employer for health coverage, only to be rejected out of hand.

The plight of the musicians and nurses has been taken up by an umbrella organization called Rock A Mole Productions, which has produced a seven-minute film, EVERYBODY IN, NOBODY OUT, which sheds light on this dark subject. The goal of the film (made on a miniscule budget) is to raise public awareness of the fight that's going on to build a system of universal health care in this country.

To order a free DVD or VHS copy of EVERYBODY IN, NOBODY OUT, go to or