Tomcat Courtney Texas Delta Blues Booking Info
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Page 4 Interviews

Picture and written interview courtesy of Dave Good and
the San Diego reader

Stories Musician Interviews
San Diego Blues Icon Tomcat Courtney

By Dave Good | Published Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010

San Diego Blues Icon Tomcat Courtney

It was more years ago than he can remember when Tom Courtney, a blues singer from Texas, became known as Tomcat. “It was some woman in New Mexico that gave me that name,” he says. “And people been callin’ me that ever since.”
We meet up in the rec room at the senior-living complex in Spring Valley where he maintains an apartment. The sun is bright but not unpleasant. Courtney is wearing a blue Rock and Roll Marathon T-shirt, white chinos, and a faded red straw hat. A thick Southern drawl softens his words. He talks about how at the age of 16 he was hired on as a tap dancer and a singer in the Ringling Brothers Circus minstrel show. He’d taught himself to tap dance after seeing Mr. Bojangles (Bill Robinson) perform on the farm where he and his family picked cotton. The circus, he says, paid much better. “I got a dollar and a half a day.” His laugh comes out like a cough.
After Ringling Brothers, Tomcat continued to perform in variety shows. Later, he became an itinerant blues singer. In 2007, at the age of 78, he received critical acclaim with the release of Downsville Blues on Blue Witch Records. This year, Tomcat Courtney was awarded Best Blues at the San Diego Music Awards. Now 81, he appears regularly at Chateau Orleans and the Turquoise Lounge, both in Pacific Beach.
What kind of blues do you play?
“The kind of blues I’m playin’ now — they call it Texas style. But we called it the country blues, you know.”
Country blues, because of the guitar styling?
Yeah. It’s the style of picking, with your fingers and all that. It wasn’t any bottle-necking, like Mississippi blues.”
What’s the story behind your first guitar?
“Man said, ‘Will you come on over and help me pull weeds in my garden? I’m gonna give you this guitar.’ We pulled weeds all day. He tried to show me how to play country-western, but I just hated what he was doin’.”
Picking cotton was the family business. What age did you start?
“Well, I had my own sack at the age of eight or nine years old. I could carry up to 70, 80 pounds.”
What part of Texas are you from?
“I’m from Waco. I was born in Marlon, Texas, and we moved to Downsville. Wasn’t nothin’ there but a store and a cotton gin, was what it was. There were railroad tracks through there, and right down from the tracks was a trestle. Right across the creek. Well, I used to go down there on that trestle and mark the train with my feet.”
“Mark the train”?
Yeah. Mark the train, you know. Like, imitate the train. I did that since I was 6, 7 years old until I was 12, 13.”
Did any big-name bluesmen pass through Downsville when you were a kid?
“Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tampa Red would come out to the farm and perform. Saturday. Sometimes on a Friday night. The people made their own whiskey and stuff out there. They made wine and whiskey [during Prohibition]. But I tell you something: As long as it stayed on that farm, the law didn’t come out there. I didn’t think about it till years later, all that shit people were makin’.”
What is the difference between being a bluesman today and in the 1940s and ‘50s when you were starting to play club dates?
More places had music in them than they do now. Chicago? Door to door to door had music in it. Los Angeles? Door to door to door had music in it.”
What changed all that?
“TV. It knocked it down.”
How long have you been in San Diego?
I came here in ’71 or ’72, and I started playing at the beach in the Texas Teahouse on Voltaire. I played there until about ’93.”
By now, how many songs do you know?
“Oh man, how many have I forgotten?”
You’ve recorded at least 40 of your own songs. What do you write about?
“Mostly about ’round-the-neighborhood things. Most bluesmen write songs about people and about the way people live.”
Your favorite blues?
“The song that I heard that really moved me the most — I guess I was very young, and he was really old then — Charley Lewis. He would sing a song, “Oh Lordy Lord,” and I never did forget the way he sang.” (Tomcat sings.) “Oh Lordy Lord, oh Lordy Lord, it hurts me so bad for us to part/ But someday, darlin’, you ain’t gonna worry my life no more/ This is my story. All I have to say is goodbye, baby/ I’m gonna let you on your way.” ¦

The long road

Blues veteran Tomcat Courtney made his way across the country before landing in San Diego

By D.A. Kolodenko
music1Tomcat Courtney

Tom “Tomcat” Courtney, an 82-year-old bluesman who won last year’s San Diego Music Award for Best Blues Artist, sits in the rec room of a modest Spring Valley senior apartment complex. Dressed in all black—his usual attire— he’s focused on our conversation but clearly enjoying the attention of his neighbors, who keep poking their heads in to say hi as they pass by.

For the past 40 years, Courtney’s been San Diego’s dominant performer of Texas blues, a form that infuses raw country blues with an amped-up, swinging groove. A longtime local secret, he’s recently garnered national attention as an authentic Texas bluesman—not the type of guy you’d expect to find in an apartment in Spring Valley.

Bluesmen often give the impression that they live like the characters in their songs. Restless with wanderlust, they travel from city to city, singing their story-songs about that slippery character called Fortune. But Fortune’s indifference is no match for the bluesman’s wit, humanity and devotion to the craft—and Courtney is no exception. His thumb-thumping, finger-plucking style wails in multiple syncopated voices. His no-nonsense refrains, about subjects ranging from a loved one’s drug addiction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, remind us of the continued relevance of the form.

But Courtney’s first passion was for dance, not song. 

“I was born in 1929 in Marlin, Texas, south of Waco, but I was raised in Downsville,” he says. “We moved by a railroad track. There was our house here and a store there—a little more to look at than in Marlin! There was a creek and a trestle over that for the train. I used to go down there every day. I got a kick out of the rhythm of the train. Then my family, we went down to see this minstrel show, and Bojangles was dancing in it, and I said, ‘Hot dog!’ and went back to that train and started learning how to tap dance to it.”

Courtney’s father must’ve really splurged to take his wife and 12 kids to the show: He was a poor farmer and the whole family picked cotton for a white landowner. But Tom Senior also played piano and ran his own juke joint, where young Tomcat would peer through the window on Saturday nights to see blues pioneers like Robert Johnson and Lightning Hopkins performing on the wood floor that his uncle built.

Courtney soon faced tragedy. Before turning 15, he lost his mother to illness, then his father in an accident during a storm. He continued farming with his brothers and sisters and practicing dancing by the train tracks. He also pulled weeds for a local landowner in exchange for a beat-up Stella guitar.

Fortune turned in his favor when the Ringling Bros. Circus needed a dancer for its minstrel show. For two years, Courtney entertained the racially segregated circus audiences, and it was there that he learned how well he could sing. One day, while coaching a female singer who kept forgetting the lyrics to “St. Louis Blues,” a blues standard, the circus director discovered Courtney’s raw but sweet voice and gave him an additional role.

In the rec room, Courtney sings the chorus of “St. Louis Blues” for me. I try to imagine it all: the excitement and tedium of the circus, the train travel, the heat, the racism, the loneliness—everything the teenager experienced as his life as a journeyman began.

After performing in a USO-funded traveling group toward the end of WW II, Courtney took to the road, washing dishes and cooking in restaurants to help pay the bills. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he edged farther west—from New Orleans to Flagstaff to Los Angeles—and finally landed a gig at the Texas Teahouse in Ocean Beach in 1971, which he wound up keeping for more than 20 years. As Courtney’s popularity grew, the now-defunct dive evolved from an under-the-radar biker bar into a packed college hangout.

Courtney’s played in just about every venue to ever feature blues in San Diego, from Belly Up Tavern to his current regular gig at The Turquoise in Pacific Beach. He’s recorded a few independent CDs over the years, but his first professionally produced national release, 2008’s well-receivedDownsville Blues, garnered praise for its authenticity and passion.

Have the long overdue awards, national attention and 2009 performances in Europe changed his goals?

“I’m just gonna keep doing my thing,” he says. “Writing my songs and singing them.”

In the rec room, he suddenly rises to his feet and walks across the carpet to the plastic floor mat by the sink to demonstrate how he danced as a kid.

Kadakatap kadiddly diddly dakatap. He’s smiling, light on his feet and in perfect rhythm. For a couple seconds, he seems not even to have the blues. 

Tomcat Courtney plays at The Turquoise on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays;and at La Gran Tapa on Tuesdays. Courtesy of City Beat  Interview By D.A. Kolodenko Jan. 19 2011


Downsville Blues
Tomcat Courtney
April 2008
Blue Witch Records
Reviewed by Steve Daniels

Of the four major compendia of blues music which I consult regularly, two mention Tomcat Courtney in passing and two omit him entirely. On the strength of this album, expect such lack of recognition to be a thing of the past.

Born in Texas, Courtney cites as his major influences Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Smokey Hogg, and John Lee Hooker. Flying under the radar of national notice, he has been a mainstay of the San Diego blues scene for over 35 years. Harmonica ace and Blue Witch Records producer Bob Corritore appreciated Tomcat’s chops and has chauffeured this album into being, and his taste has been vindicated. “Downsville Blues” absolutely smokes!
Nine of the 12 songs on the album are Courtney compositions, and they are all memorable. “Cook My Breakfast” displays sexual innuendo by way of food metaphor, and “Four Wheel Drive” does the same with an automobile conceit, both tactics long in use in the blues idiom. “Shake It Up Baby” and the traditional “Bottle It Up and Go” continue the raunchy theme. Courtney does a great job singing the Mance Lipscomb classic, “Meet Me in the Bottom.” His own song about the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, “Disaster Blues,” is poignant, angry, and bitter, a worthy reminder of the cataclysm. There is not one mediocre song of the 12. Throughout, a spirit of infectious high energy prevails; it just feels like Courtney is having a great time singing and playing.
Courtney’s guitar stylings are admirable, recalling the playing of both Hopkins and Hooker, but it’s his vocal prowess which deserves raves. What a voice! Tomcat can growl and moan with the best of contemporary country blues artists; on “I’m So Glad” he even sounds like the great Chicago urban bluesmen Magic Slim and Howlin’ Wolf (high praise intended). On his tunes of erotic desire, he channels Hopkins but trades Lightnin’s almost-spoken suggestive drawl for a boisterous, assertive invitation to boogie. Every vocal is dripping with emotion and conviction.
Tomcat is backed by  Corritore on harp, Chris James on guitar, Patrick Rynn on bass, and Brian Fahey and Muddy Waters’s sideman “Big Eyes” Smith on drums. Appropriately, each song showcases Courtney’s talent with the stellar but the band is  subordinate.

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