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Wallace Coleman playing with the Robert Lockwood Band at Brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1990

Traditional Arts in Ohio: A Blues Journey

Coleman playing with the Hein Meijer Band during his tour of the Netherlands in 2019. Photo by Jody Getz.In December 2020, I had the good fortune to spend an hour on Zoom speaking with Wallace Coleman, a Cleveland-based blues harmonica player and 2007 Ohio Heritage Fellow. We talked about aspects of his life story, and about a blues itinerary that winds through many decades, states, and countries. Though we were safely hunkered down in our respective homes in Cleveland and Columbus, our conversation was a journey that told a story of musical travels, years of practice, later-in-life discoveries, and well-deserved recognition.

Wallace Coleman did not hear the blues growing up as a child in the 1940s in Morristown, Tennessee. The local air waves were filled with country music, and church was the one place where Coleman heard music played and sung by Black musicians.

That changed one day when he was scanning the dial looking for the Lone Ranger program, and instead picked up WLAC out of Nashville.

Coleman with his mother Ella Mae and sister Janie in Tennessee in 1946. Photo courtesy of Wallace Coleman.“And I said, ‘What in the world is that?’” Coleman recalled.

What he heard was an electrified blues harmonica.

“And when they got through, a guy comes on he says, ‘This is John Richbourg at WLAC, Nashville, Tennessee, that was Little Walter,’” Coleman said. “I had never heard blues, and I had never heard it played electrically. So, I’m saying to myself, ‘What kind of instrument is that?’ I got hooked on it. And then he put Muddy Waters on, and Little Walter was playing harp behind one of his songs. And I said, ‘Man, that really sounds great. I've never heard anything like that before.’”

By way of WLAC, Coleman was discovering American Blues. What he couldn't know was that, some 30 years later, one of the architects of these Chess-era recordings, Robert Lockwood, would play a pivotal role in Coleman's life.

Coleman started tuning into the station every night, and he continued tuning in after he moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to live with his mother, joining families of job seekers from all over the south who came to live in the “Atomic City,” the former site of the Manhattan Project.

“Then I got to meet young Black people from Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, all over,” he said. “And some of those people knew WLAC; they had been getting it on the radio for years.”

In the Atomic City, Coleman could listen to blues on the radio from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. every night, and he often did.

“I’d go to school the next day—I’d be so sleepy,” he said, laughing. “Listened at the radio too many times, I guess.”

Coleman in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1954. Photo courtesy of Wallace Coleman.Living in Oak Ridge also put Coleman closer to Knoxville, where he saw his first live blues show.

“It was in the Black section of town, it was a theatre called the Gem Theater. And I remember they had Jimmy Reed. That was the first blues musician that I ever saw in my life,” he said. “They had him there one weekend, and I caught the bus from Oak Ridge. And that was a big thrill. You know, here’s a genuine blues guy playing the harmonica and the guitar at the same time. I said, ‘Wow.’ I really got hooked on the blues.”

Around that time, Coleman also started playing the harmonica. He sent for Lonnie Glosson and Wayne Raney’s learn-to-play book, which they promoted through their radio show on WCKY out of Cincinnati. The first song he learned to play was “The Mama Blues,” the title song of the book.

“I learned how to play that­ – I said, ‘You wave your hands back and forth!’ And after that, it seemed like I started getting better at playing some of this stuff by Jimmy Reed and different harmonica players,” Coleman said.

The Gem Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee.As a young man Coleman also spent time in Union Springs, Alabama, where he moved with a friend for six months to harvest cotton and cut timber. There, in the evenings he’d go to juke joints—small, informal, Black-owned clubs considered to be the true home of southern blues culture.

“That was my first experience going into a juke joint to hear blues music,” he said. “And I got hooked on that.”

Coleman was in his early twenties when he moved to Cleveland in the mid-1950s. He’s lived in the city ever since.

“When I got to Cleveland,” he said, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

It was a thrill living in a city with a major league baseball team and with plenty of places to hear the blues. Legendary blues artists’ tours often traveled through Northeast Ohio, so to Coleman, it seemed that the blues were now coming to him.

“My stepfather started taking me to these places because he knew I liked the music,” Coleman said. “There was a place in Cleveland called Gleason’s that you could go and hear all kinds of blues bands.”

By that time, Cleveland wasn’t just a popular stop for touring blues artists—Robert Jr. Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson II had actually migrated to Cleveland, and the city became Lockwood's final home. While Coleman hadn't met Lockwood yet, Williamson was a friendly neighbor who Coleman often went to hear play.

The Hough Bakeries Building in Cleveland, Ohio.Coleman worked at Cleveland’s Hough Bakeries —a union job that had a 30-and-out retirement policy that would set him up to pursue his second career as a musician. He eventually became a Work Leader, assisting managers and overseeing operations and scheduling. During his years working at Hough Bakeries, Coleman nurtured his love for the blues by seeing as many shows as he could and by playing the harmonica casually, practicing at home and on breaks at work.

In the late 1980s, shortly before he retired, a friend at work told Coleman that he should see about sitting in with Cleveland blues musician Guitar Slim sometime. Coleman didn’t have the nerve to approach Guitar Slim, so his friend invited him to Hough Bakeries one day to hear Coleman play. They sat in a car and played, Guitar Slim on his guitar and Coleman on his harmonica, and Guitar Slim made him promise to come sit in with his band at the Cascade Lounge—which he did two weeks later.

About a year after Coleman began sitting in with Guitar Slim, Lockwood visited the Cascade Lounge to hear Coleman play. He was impressed with how Coleman played changes—the technique of playing along with the rhythm section, rather than playing lead. This style of playing was the hallmark of Lockwood’s former musical collaborator, Little Walter Jacobs (who Coleman had first heard on the radio back in Morristown, Tennessee).

Coleman, right, playing with the Guitar Slim, left, at the Cascade Lounge in Cleveland in 2001. Photo by Jody Getz.Lockwood invited Coleman to come play professionally with his band. It was probably better that Coleman didn't yet know that while Lockwood had recorded and performed with the most innovative and revered harmonica players of all time, he didn't actually like them. Coleman waited another year—until he had 31 years in at the bakery and could retire—and then gave Lockwood a call.

Coleman spent six months practicing with the Lockwood Band and then joined them on tour, launching his new career as a professional musician. He recounted the story of the first time he played in front of several thousands of people, at the King Biscuit Blues festival in Helena, Arkansas, not far from Lockwood’s childhood home.

Wallace Coleman, second from left, playing with the Robert Lockwood, Right, Band at Brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1990. Photo by Terry Hardy.“The first time I went, we were on the main stage, and it was so many people,” Coleman said. “I’m looking, and Maurice the saxophone player looked at me, and he said, ‘Wallace, you alright?’ I said, ‘I think so.’ He says, ‘You don't look too good.’”

Maurice told Coleman not to look out at the crowd when he played.

“‘You take your harmonica and look up and play like that,’” Coleman remembers him saying. “He said, ‘Don't look at the people. They’ll get on your nerves.’ And that was true. I didn’t realize it.”

Coleman eventually got over his nerves, and he fondly remembers returning to that festival.

Coleman, left, playing with the Robert Lockwood Band in Minnesota in 1994. Photo courtesy of Wallace Coleman.“That to me was the greatest blues festival I’ve ever played in. It wasn’t real big, like some of them. But it gives you a good feeling because that’s where the blues came from. And everybody’s so friendly—it’s a cool place,” he said.

When Coleman joined the Lockwood Band, a whole new world opened up to him – he toured Japan with the band in 1990 and 1995, and he played in front of enormous crowds at events like the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Montreal Jazz Festival, each with more than 250,000 in attendance.

Especially in the early years, Coleman preferred to stay in the background when playing with Lockwood. That changed one night when a bandmate suggested that Coleman fill in on vocals for a musician who couldn’t play that gig. At Lockwood’s request Coleman sang that night, and after the gig, he took Coleman aside, upset that he never mentioned he could sing: “Don’t you never hold back something like that in this music,” he told Coleman.

Coleman, left, with the Robert Lockwood Band in Japan in 1991. Photo courtesy of Wallace Coleman.After that, Coleman was featured in the opening numbers the band would play before Lockwood came to the stage, often performing several songs by his favorite artists (like Little Walter Jacobs). It’s unclear if Lockwood ever intended to start performing 1950s Chess-era blues again, a style that was imprinted with his unmistakable guitar voice. But in choosing Coleman, Lockwood now had a musical lineup that brought it right back to him. Over the course of the next 10 years, as Lockwood reminisced, Coleman emerged as a force in the band. Lockwood would often forego his headliner status and join the band on stage as they opened a set, so that he could play on some of Coleman’s blues. Their pairing inspired someone to observe that, "Robert Lockwood didn’t like harmonica players and said he’d never have one in his band. Then he heard Wallace Coleman play."

When they weren’t touring, several of the band members formed a side band to play local shows, with Coleman at the center.  

Coleman, left, playing with the Robert Lockwood Band at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1995. Photo by Nanny Kajuiter.After they had toured together for several years, Lockwood began telling Coleman that he should think about forming his own band—that the people wanted to hear more from him. 

So, in 1997, after 10 life-changing years, Coleman decided to leave the Lockwood Band and formed his own group. He recorded his first, self-titled CD on a local label; after that, he and his wife, guitarist Jody Getz, formed their own label to release their next five albums. Their most recent release, “Live from Sao Paulo to Severance,” features live recordings from shows in Brazil and from Cleveland’s Severance Hall.

Coleman has seen blues communities change significantly during his lifetime.

“In Cleveland—and I’m pretty sure this is not the only city that has done it—the clubs have closed down,” he said. “(There are) at least a half a dozen clubs that we played that I know went out of business.”

Coleman, center, playing with Levon Helm and Bob Margolin in 2001. Photo by Jody Getz.Festivals, too, have been shrinking or folding over the last few decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has hit festival organizers, club owners, and performers hard.

“The whole business of blues is not gonna come back like it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Coleman said. “And you don’t have that many young Black people that are into blues anymore. They’ve got their own thing, which is cool.”

Coleman takes heart in the fact that musicians are keeping the blues alive, even if there are fewer of them.

“(As) long as the music is still breathing, it ain’t completely dead,” he said.

And although the big crowds are certainly thrilling, Coleman said he loves playing informal, intimate music venues just as much, if not more. Smaller spaces are a better fit for performing both electric blues and folk blues, the style he’s playing more of these days.

Coleman, left, playing at Hatfield’s in Cleveland in 2017. Photo courtesy of Wallace Coleman.Today, Coleman said, Clarksdale, Mississippi, is the real blues mecca, home of the Blues Museum and plenty of operating clubs. He has also found larger audiences and eager collaborators overseas.

“When you go out of the country, that’s when you realize that (blues) is definitely not dead, in Europe and South America,” he said.  “I mean, those people really come out in big crowds to hear you there.”

Although his in-person appearances have been put on hold during the pandemic, Coleman still tours nationally and internationally, thrilling fans of traditional blues and folk music in the U.S., Europe, and South America.

Coleman recorded his latest album during his most recent tour of Belgium and the Netherlands in 2019 and was backed by The Little Boogie Boy Blues Band from North Holland.

“And man, they can play!” he said.

During our conversation, Coleman asked me if I played any music. I said that I played a little guitar and banjo and added that one of the things I found so interesting about our conversation was how it spoke to the potential to chart new artistic courses later in life.

Wallace Coleman with Igor Prado Band in Brazil in 2013. Photo courtesy of Wallace Coleman.“You know,” Coleman said, “I thank God. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to play even at that age. But I was blessed being a person with the bakers’ union—30 years and out at any age—and I had my 30 years when I was 51 years old, so I was able to retire. I’m blessed to get that. If I hadn’t have done that, I probably would never have started playing at all. I’d have just been a guy that listened to music.”

As for taking the next step in my musical journey, Coleman did have one piece of advice: “Don’t wait too long!”

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Cristina Benedetti, Ohio Arts Council Folk and Traditional Arts Contractor
Featured photo: Wallace Coleman playing with the Robert Lockwood Band at Brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1990. Photo by Terry Hardy.



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