On Friday, the Akron Civic Theatre will be filled with ghosts.
No, the entities won’t be the disappointed spirits of folks whose careers died on the Civic stage, but the spirit of the blues, the seminal genre at the base of so much of modern music.
Ghost of the Blues is a Broadway revue featuring blues musicians and actors playing the roles and performing the music of seminal blues artists and legends including Son House, Muddy Waters, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon as well as acolytes Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan.. Songs include classics such as James’ I’d Rather Go Blind, Hooker’s Boogie Chillen’ and Johnson’s Crossroads.
The first half takes place in a graveyard, the entrance into “Blues Heaven,” which is also the name of the charitable organization founded by the late Willie Dixon to help indigent blues musicians survive.
The second half takes place at a classic juke joint called the Canal House, a nod to the long-running blues bar in Tuscarawas of the same name.
Ghost of the Blues is the brainchild of Randy Knight, 64, an energetic, lifelong blues fan and retired insurance man and former headhunter.
“I just kind of liked that kind of music, the rhythm and the storylines and lyrics made sense,” said Knight who lives in Dover in Tuscarawas County.
An Akron native, Knight was inspired to write and produce Ghost of the Blues after hanging out at the Canal House and seeing contemporary artists such as Tab Benoit, Coco Montoya and others. He initially considered putting together a blues festival, but decided that was too big a project.
“One night, I was sitting at home after drinking too much red wine and I walked over to my computer and banged out a Broadway show for the fun of it. I couldn’t sleep,” he said.
Upon finishing, Knight decided that producing a full-sized play would still be too big of a logistical undertaking and finding actors who could really play the blues would be difficult.
“You can’t teach the blues. You either grow up with it or you don’t get it,” he said.
So Knight stripped away the dialogue, his elaborate set concepts and other accoutrement to the bare minimum, rewriting the show as a blues revue featuring real, working blues musicians opening with Eddie James House Jr., better known as Son House, played by local blues legend Sonny Robertson.
“If you have a 75-year-old blues legend like Son House, you have to get a 75-year-old blues legend like Howard “Sonny” Robertson to play the part. It just doesn’t work with some kid trying to do that,” Knight chuckled.
“I’ve seen that guy since I was 20 years old in Akron, and I’ve always liked him,” Knight said of Robertson whose credentials include a stint as Albert King’s rhythm guitarist and jamming with other legends including Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor.
“But you have no idea what he can do until you put him on a stage in front of 2,000 people in a theater setting. It’s not like he’s playing at the park with the guys. That old man is a big hit in this show, the girls love him,” Knight said. Robertson also plays John Lee Hooker
The primary cast also includes Michigan singer/guitarist Bobby Wilson as seminal Delta bluesman Robert Johnson; Washington, D.C.-based singer Stacy Brooks as singers Etta James and Koko Taylor, and Dave “Biscuit” Miller as legendary Chess Records songwriter/bassist/singer Willie Dixon. Harmonica player John King takes on Chicago bluesman Little Walter, and Mud Morganfield, the eldest son of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, performs the music of his father.
“He is the son of the seventh son. He looks a little bit like his dad and he sounds a little bit like his dad. You cannot beat DNA,” Knight said. “When you see Mud on stage, you can feel it. The hair on the back of your neck will stand up.”
Ghost of the Blues debuted and had a successful run at the Canton Palace Theatre in September and now Knight is taking it on the road with Akron as its first stop. The tour includes dates in West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Florida.
Knight admitted being nervous about the show initially, but said his confidence was bolstered after watching the performers own the audience at the Canton Palace show.
“I thought I’ll film and give it to my mom for a Christmas present on DVD and that’ll be the end of it. But the audience reaction to the show was overwhelming. When Stacy sings I’d Rather Go Blind as Etta James, the women in the audience were crying.
“It’s one thing to see a blues guy in a bar where people are drinking and eating a hamburger or chit-chatting to girls and the music is like background music,” Knight said, “but when they pay $50 a ticket … and you have 1,000 or 2,000 of them in a theater and they’re focused on the band, it’s like some kind of tent revival happening. It’s an event.”
Knight credited the performers with the idea of touring the show and he is using an unusual routing strategy that has Ghost of the Blues roughly following B.B. King and Buddy Guy’s current tours.
“If they go to a theater I know it’s a blues theater and I can go there a few months later and still capture that blues audience,” he said.
Knight said he wrote Ghost of the Blues to be “plug and play,” knowing that all of the performers have careers and may not always be available to tour.
“You can see this show 10 times and you won’t hear the exact same music or see the exact same players,” he said.
Knight hopes to continually tour Ghost of the Blues and build a circuit of around 30 theaters around the country that will welcome the show.
Knight said all credit goes to the cast for bringing his late-night, wine-fueled vision to fruition and said he’s even more excited about the show now than when he first dreamed it up.
“Do I sound excited?” he asked, excitedly.
“I want to see the show right now. I want to see the show so bad I bought a $35,000 ticket,” he said laughing, referring to the cost of the production.