Back in my Record Store days, Adam and I used to make regular treks down to Over-the-Rhine to see our legendary blues heroes in action. We caught Pigmeat Jarrett, H-Bomb Ferguson and Big Joe Duskin every chance we could, usually at Jefferson Hall but sometimes at other area bars, and occasionally in someone's living room. Adam had a real nose for sniffing out good gigs where ever they may be, and he'd drive if I paid the cover.
The last of those legendary bluesmen died Sunday, when Big Joe left for that great gig in the sky.
Legendary bluesman dead at 86
By Rick BirdPost staff reporter
Big Joe Duskin, who died Sunday, is being remembered as perhaps the last of Cincinnati's "greatest generation" of blues men.
Big Joe Duskin played the blues, but he did it with a smile, a big heart and a joyful boogie woogie piano sound that influenced countless Cincinnati musicians.
Duskin died Sunday morning at his home in Avondale at the age of 86. Family spokesman Keith Little said Duskin had been in failing health for several months from complications from diabetes. He died a day before he was scheduled for surgery to have both legs amputated.
Duskin, who played with a rugged elegance, is being remembered as perhaps the last of Cincinnati's "greatest generation" of blues men. He was part of the pre-World War II players whose earthy music would become a window to the soul of the African-American experience and lay the groundwork for everything to come - from rock 'n' roll and R&B to hip hop.
Duskin's death comes just six months after the passing of another local blues and R&B legend, piano player H-Bomb Ferguson.
In addition to being a musician, Duskin was a World War II veteran, a postal worker and police officer.
Over the last 35 years he welcomed anyone on stage to perform with him.
"What that meant is a whole lot of people were standing next to Joe and jamming, drinking from that original source. He changed the musical lives for many musicians in this town," said Larry Nager, a musician and former music writer for The Post and the Enquirer. Nager produced Duskin's last recording, "Big Joe Jumps Again," released in 2004.
Harmonica player Steve Tracy, now a professor of African-American studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of "Going to Cincinnati: A History of Blues in the Queen City," said Duskin made other players feel special.
"When you played with him, you became the focus. He was just big-hearted and gregarious and that comes through in his music, too," said Tracy.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1921, the third of 11 children, Duskin told Tracy in his 1993 book that one of his first memories was seeing hooded Ku Klux Klansmen outside his house as they dragged his older cousin out of his bed and hanged him for stealing a sack of potatoes from a white grocer.
By the late 1930s, Duskin had become a teenage piano-playing phenom on the Cincinnati blues scene, performing in venues that ranged from the black clubs of the West End to saloons in Over-the-Rhine where the blues flowed into the streets like the beer.
"Listen, in every beer garden and every home there was a piano," Duskin told The Post in a 2004 interview. "Man, you'd go in there and beat out those blues. I'd go and sit in and get about 15 cents. You thought that was money back in them days. It was great."
Duskin's critics included his father, who called blues "the devil's music" and whipped his son whenever he caught him playing it. Eventually, young Joe made a promise to his dad that he would no longer play boogie woogie music while his dad was alive.
When he made that promise, Duskin's dad was in his 80s. Perry Duskin lived to be 105, dying in 1963.
By all accounts, Duskin kept that promise and moved on to "life's work." He was a Lincoln Heights police officer for 10 years, then had a 20-year career with the U.S. Post Office.
But the early '70s brought a renewed interest in America's indigenous music, spurred by many Baby Boomers discovering it was really the original blues men who wrote the rock 'n' roll book.
It was Tracy - then a recent Walnut Hills High School grad, blues aficionado and a talented harp player - who looked up Duskin in 1971 while he was researching Cincinnati blues players. Tracy encouraged Duskin to play with his band in Mount Adams hangouts, and Duskin became a popular figure in clubs such as Coco's and Corry's. He frequently opened at Bogart's for national blues legends performing there.
By the '80s, Duskin was drawing bigger crowds in Europe than he was in Cincinnati, playing festivals and clubs where fans couldn't get enough of America's original blues artists. In the '90s, he teamed with singer Sweet Alice Hoskins for two tours of Paris and Italy for what was billed "A Night of Cincinnati Blues."
"Oh, they loved him over there, except when he tried to speak French," said Hoskins.
For Hoskins, the beauty of Duskin's sound was that he was the "real deal," something she has tried to copy in her own act.
"He got those low tones and the deepest sound on that piano," Hoskins said. "It was straight down blues. It was from the days when people would dance to the blues. When Joe got those deep down tones you could feel like you wanted to get up. You can't hardly find that sound in people today."
As late as 2000, Duskin was still playing in Germany and Belgium and still trying to speak the language.
"I tell them, 'Ich liebe dich. I love you, I love all of you.' By me speaking a little German, they love that. They just go crazy," Duskin said in a 2002 interview.
Three years ago, Duskin recorded "Big Joe Jumps Again," a live studio set that played as a great slice of his original boogie woogie blues sound, even if his skills were diminished by age 83. Still, it was an album that would get him a W.C. Handy nomination (the blues version of the Grammys) for "comeback of the year." (It also got some attention because blues-rock legend Peter Frampton contributed guitar tracks to a song).
He did not win, but still went to the Memphis awards and was a featured performer hanging out with the elite of the blues world.
"There was Charlie Musslewhite, Shamika Copeland, Guitar Shorty, Pinetop (Perkins). It was good to see Joe where he belonged, which is hanging with these folks," said Nager. Other accolades followed Duskin in 2005 when was presented an Ohio Heritage Award for arts contributions and performed before a 10,000 people at the Dayton Folk Festival.
When asked two years ago about the recognition, Duskin was appreciative, but did express some regrets he abandoned music for so long. Of course, there was also a bit of boogie woogie bravado when he said: "If it hadn't been for my dad, Oscar Peterson couldn't have touched me, no place. I mean that. I was playing jazz, boogie-woogie, blues, classical - you name it. Even opera. I would have been one of the greatest piano players.''
Tracy said what made Duskin truly great was that indefinable element.
"Sometimes people can play the notes," he said. "But there is just that special soul and feel that makes it sound better coming out of those musicians that have it inside of them. Joe had that."
Duskin is survived by his wife, Emma Harris; a daughter, Sharon Parks; a step-daughter, Ernestine Davis; and three sons, Ronald Lee Duskin, Ray Duskin and Yahku, all from Cincinnati.
Services will be at noon Saturday at Hall-Jordan & Thompson Funeral Home at Jordan's Crossing, Seymour Avenue and Reading Road, Bond Hill. A private family burial will be Monday in Dayton. Donations to the family may be made at any US Bank location in care of Joseph L. Duskin or Emma Harris.