For many blues performers and their audiences, the relationship between the musical performance and storytelling is definitive of the genre and central to the blues tradition. These stories are rich in history, building a legacy of perseverance and success from the early days of field hollers and slave spirituals to the stories born on dimly lit stages and preserved in dusty tomes.
The Springing the Blues Festival started small, as stories do. Founder Sam Veal had an idea to create a local music festival celebrating blues music. Plans were simple – one day and six bands on a tiny, open-air stage in the heart of Jacksonville Beach. For a fledgling event, it was well-attended, but that was just the beginning of the story.
The first annual Springing the Blues Festival was held in 1991, and an estimated 3,000 people showed up. Veal knew he had something special. “It was such a great feeling, such a great vibe,” he says. “It didn’t matter if you were black or white, gay or straight, young or old. Everyone shared something in common with the music.”
A quarter of a century later, the George’s Music Springing the Blues Festival has evolved from six hours of free music on the tiny, concrete stage to drawing thousands to the city’s oceanfront amphitheatre for three days of blues at what is now a premiere event in the blues community.
The 25th Annual George’s Music Springing the Blues Festival is held April 17-19 at the SeaWalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach. Traditionally held the first weekend of April, the festival was pushed back to April 17-19 to avoid competing with the Easter holiday and One Spark.
“One of the things that makes Springing the Blues such a great event is, of course, the music. Springing the Blues was built upon America’s indigenous art form known as the blues. A lot of the artists don’t get the same kind of recognition that a lot of the big pop stars do. We thought it was a great opportunity to bring up-and-coming blues artists to the beach and let a lot of people get to see folks that are now big names,” Veal says.Chuck Saunders was among the local acts that played thTab Benoite first festival with his band Woody & the Peckers. “We went from playing for maybe 300 people to 10,00 people at one time,” he says. “There is nothing like playing for 10,000 people because the energy comes back at you. It’s unbelievable.”
As performer and stage manager for Springing the Blues, Saunders has rubbed elbows with hundreds of performers over the years but looks to the late Michael Burks as “one of the best.” “Michael Burks was fantastic, but unfortunately, he died on tour a few years ago,” he says. “Fantastic performer, great showman and what guitar players call a player. The guy could play that guitar.”
Veal looks fondly back on the years, the performers and the stories that have shaped the history and legacy of the festival. There was the time Jimmy Thackery and Tab Benoit exceeded the city’s time limit for live music and the police department pulled the plug in mid-performance. And walking back on the beach from Ragtime to the old Ramada Inn in Jacksonville Beach with Charlie Musselwhite and Eddie Shaw, listening to those two guys tell a story of Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer Sam Lay.
Lay was playing one night in Chicago when the jilted boyfriend of a woman he’d been messing with came into the juke joint and shot at him. He reached for his own gun, accidentally shooting himself in the crotch. The two men exchanged fire before Lay returned to the stage in blood-soaked pants and finished out the set.
In 1995, he recalls booking the largely unknown Susan Tedeschi to perform. She stayed at Veal’s home and rode his daughter’s bike to the venue. Veal also invited hometown swamp rockers Mofro to play the festival during a pivotal rise in the band’s popularity.
Former Mofro member Daryl Hance, who now a successful solo artist, remembers the first time the band played Springing in The Blues in 2002. “I was quite blown away by how many thousands of people were there. I had no idea how big this festival was. It was at the tail-end of one of our first tours, and the band’s set started out well enough. “However, as the show progressed, we had a few “equipment malfunctions.” The bass amp zoided and quit. Our key/sax player’s saxophone pretty much fell apart on him, and I think his keyboard amp quit on him as well,” he says. “In the end, it all worked out well enough, and we landed on our feet.”
Three years later, Mofro had upgraded to more road-ready gear and the show went off without a hitch. “It was about eight months after our second album “Lochloosa” came out and you couldn’t have asked for a better home town show,” Hance says. “Beautiful weather, awesome crowd of maybe 20,000 or so, friends, family, and the Atlantic Ocean as far as you could see.”
Veal has also enjoyed the emotional success of reintroducing a former blues legend who had disappeared from the blues scene into a mysterious cloud of obscurity. In his heyday, Crown Prince Waterford was touted as a world-class blues shouter. Someone calling himself that name called Veal late one night, claiming his accomplishments as his own and looking for a comeback spot at Springing the Blues.
All of the slots were filled for the year, and Veal dismissed the call. Months later while leafing through a blues magazine, he stumbled on a piece referencing the Crown Prince of Waterford and validating everything that Veal’s caller had claimed.
“The hairs stood up. God almighty knows. I wondered to myself, where could he have called me from?” Veal says. Taking a shot in the dark, he looked to the phone book where he found a listing for Rev. Solomon Charles Waterford in Jacksonville. He called the number and asked the gruff voice on the end of the line if he was “the greatest blues shouter that ever lived?” After a brief pause, the voice said yes and asked who was calling. “I said ‘this is Sam Veal’. And he said ‘I’ve been waiting for your call’.”
Thus began the re-discovery of Crown Prince Waterford. Veal enlisted a supportive team including barrel house piano player Jim McKaba, Michael Burke’s keyboardist Stuart Baer, the Grammy Association and even his own father’s dentist to help him get back on his feet and on the stage. The years had been unkind to Waterford who vanished from the early blues scene and ended up in a rough area of Jacksonville where he helped establish a small church.
Waterford was in his 80s and a big man of 6’5” though he was hunched over, his speech slowed and slurred. He suffered from cataracts, diabetes and embarrassing dental decay. The award of a $3,000 grant from the Grammy Association to assist aging musicians with healthcare helped restore his teeth, but when Baer started plinking at the piano keys, the body of the slow, big man was inhabited by a spirit decades younger. His fingers snapping and his head bobbing, Veal says he jumped off the couch “like he was 23 and related to Jerry Lee Lewis” and started shouting out the blues.
His concrete bunker-style home reflected his own physical decay as he shuffled through decades of dust and dank disrepair. An old stand-up piano and a guitar stood in a corner of the room. A ragged scrapbook sat on the ancient coffee table with photos of a young Crown Prince alongside such greats as Dorothy Dandridge and Duke Ellington. A closet full of the fine but threadbare suits worn during performances hung mummified in a closet. Veal unearthed a dusty vinyl LP of gospel hymns recorded by Rev. Solomon Charles Waterford at Cypress Studios in Jacksonville Beach.
Starving for him to perform at Springing the Blues, Veal and McKaba coaxed Waterford into rehearsals but could not convince him to take the stage. Veal refused to give up and continued his pursuit, finally sending a friend to Waterford’s home with two $50 bills; one if he got in the car waiting to take him to the SeaWalk Pavilion and the other if he got out of the car.
“The Crown Prince hung up the phone and five minutes later, he unlocked the door and walked out dressed to the nines although it was old, threadbare stuff. He got in the car [that was waiting] and came out to the festival.”
Veal ushered the Crown Prince backstage and urged him to walk on stage where McKaba was playing. Waterford was overcome by the music and unleashed something akin to thunder in a bottle. “As he is walking across the stage he is shuffling, humble with head down. Right when we got to the microphone, McKaba hit a note and he grabbed the microphone away from me and didn’t miss a beat with the band,” Veal says. “And so the Crown Prince performed at Springing the Blues Festival. It’s a really great blues story. That kind of sums up the spirit of Springing the Blues right there.”
Says Jackson, “I congratulate the Jax Beach Festivals, INC, Sam Veal and staff on their 25th anniversary and will miss being there to toast and celebrate with them for bringing art, entertainment and people together for a quarter century.” The late, great Michael Burks said it best just before his final headlining performance in 2010. “A Sam Veal-party is always a good party.”
Friday Main Stage
|5:00 – 5:45||Kara Grainger|
|6:00 – 7:00||Cedric Burnside|
|7:15 – 8:15||Selwyn Birchwood|
|8:30 – 10:00||Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band|
Friday Blues Lounge
|5:00 – 6:00||Selwyn Birchwood|
|6:20 – 7:30||Brady Clampitt|
|7:45 – 8:45||Kara Grainger|
|9:00 – 10:00||Cedric Burnside|
Saturday Main Stage
|Noon – 1:00||Betty Fox Band|
|1:20 – 2:20||Backtrack Blues Band|
|2:45 – 3:45||Homemade Jamz Blues Band|
|4:00 – 5:00||Eddie Shaw & the Wolfgang|
|5:20 – 6:20||John Nemeth|
|6:45 – 8:15||Samantha Fish|
|8:30 – 10:00||Tinsley Ellis|
Saturday Blues Lounge
|Noon – 12:45||Uncle Jonny’s Blues Machine|
|1:00 – 2:00||George’s Music Winner|
|2:20 – 3:20||Betty Fox Band|
|3:45 – 4:45||Backtrack Blues Band|
|5:00 – 5:45||Homemade Jamz Blues Band|
|6:10 – 7:10||Eddie Shaw & the Wolfgang|
|7:30 – 8:45||Parker Urban Band|
|9:00 – 10:00||John Nemeth|
Sunday Main Stage
|Noon – 1:00||John Miller & BayStreet|
|1:20 – 2:10||Jim McKaba & the After Hours Band|
|2:30 – 3:30||Woody & the Peckers|
|3:45 – 4:45||Lightnin’ Malcolm|
|5:10 – 6:10||Sharrie Williams|
|6:30 – 8:00||The Lee Boys|
Sunday Blues Lounge
|Noon – 1:00||Willie Green|
|1:20 – 2:20||Mama Blue|
|2:45 – 3:30||Sharrie Williams|
|3:50 – 4:50||Jim McKaba & the After Hours Band|
|5:15 – 6:15||John Miller & Bay Street|
|6:30 – 7:30||Lightnin’ Malcolm|