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Threesome is 'committed to the cause'

The Suncoast Blues Society, radio station WMNF and Skipper's Smokehouse, a venue for many blues artists, work together to keep the blues alive.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 6, 2002


TAMPA -- Despite the popularity of certain teen guitar slingers and the occasional hit from Eric Clapton or Bonnie Raitt, blues music is an American cultural treasure that's too often taken for granted.

Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Otis Rush and a few other veterans and up-and-coming talents may have the lifelong loyalty of blues aficionados, but Britney Spears has no worry that her label will trim her salary to hire artists rooted in the tradition of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.

The best way to keep the blues alive is concerts by national acts and local artists. Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, voted best blues club in the country last year by the Blues Foundation, is the leader in west-central Florida. The Tampa Bay Blues Festival is also a strong player in that regard, as are the Ringside Cafe in St. Petersburg and the Five O'Clock Club in Sarasota.

Also, the music needs airplay. WMNF-FM (88.5) plays that role in the Tampa Bay area, offering blues every weekday afternoon and Friday nights, with Bob "Soul Man" Scheir's long-running show.

But venues and a radio station aren't enough, says Larry Lisk, president of the Suncoast Blues Society, which marks its fifth anniversary Saturday with a show at Skippers.

"To keep this stuff alive, to keep these (musicians) coming through here, the best way to do that is with a band of people committed to the cause," says Lisk, who hosts the Tuesday Blues Lovers edition of the Afternoon Blues Cruise on WMNF.

"It's a tripod: Skipper's, WMNF and the blues society. We're the voice."

That's not just hype: The Suncoast Blues Society, organized by Lisk and longtime WMNF volunteer Ken Torvik, is one of the largest such organizations in the United States, with nearly 1,100 dues-paying members in 28 states and the United Kingdom. The group's newsletter, often 20 pages or larger, goes out to 900 members, and Torvik's weekly electronic newsletter is sent to about 600 e-mail addresses.

Through benefit concerts and other efforts, the club has raised $8,000 so far for WMNF's new building fund; $3,200 for the Diamond Teeth Mary Really Got the Blues Fund, for needy musicians; $1,000 for Rock Bottom Memorial Music scholarships, given to high school seniors Tiffany Gullatt of Tampa and Adrian Holton of Palm Harbor; $9,000 for World Trade Center survivors; and additional money to help defray funeral expenses for the late Rock Bottom.

"I think they are very important in keeping blues out there in the forefront of people's minds," Tom White, co-owner of Skipper's Smokehouse, says of the society. "There might have been a little bit of slowdown on blues for a while. I think they've rekindled the fire and got people coming out again. Their events are always fun."

Saturday's show features guitarist James Solberg, a longtime sideman and bandleader for late blues master Luther Allison. Allison's work was responsible for the creation of the Suncoast Blues Society: Lisk and Torvik hatched the plan on their way home from a 1996 road trip to Fort Lauderdale to see Allison perform.

"I had never seen anybody just put his whole essence into what he was doing," Torvik says. "The guy just sweated the music. The energy and the power of the whole show was amazing. When we were driving back that night, we finally said, "We're going to do this.' "

Says Lisk: "We got started talking about how great this music was and what a shame Luther spent so much time in Europe before he got recognized again in the United States. (We thought) we got to find a way to let people know about this."

At a glance

Suncoast Blues Society fifth anniversary party, featuring guitarist James Solberg, 8 p.m. Saturday, Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road, Tampa; $7 advance, $10 day of show; tickets available at Skipper's or through the Suncoast Blues Society. Call Skipper's Smokehouse at (813) 971-0666. For more information on the blues society, go to www.suncoastblues.org.

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