King Snake Records, back-porch jams, memories of the chitlin’ circuit
How the small Central Florida city played a pivotal role in keeping blues music alive in the Sunshine State
Published: June 4, 2014
Buses full of touring musicians, a lot of them from Georgia, would roll into town around sunset, Fields says, pulling up to now-extinct joints like the Do Duck Inn, Perlie Mae Brown’s, Goldsboro Bar, Two Spot and others.
In the early to mid-1960s, the circuit was vital – racism and segregation made it hard for black entertainers to make a living, and it gave them a network of places to perform. But when Motown was founded and started to experience success introducing its sound to a wider audience, it transformed how blues music was perceived by mainstream Americans. It made blues music accessible to people of all colors, he says, and it proved wildly popular.
“It was new music for a new generation,” he says. “It crossed racial lines. At the time, it was needed.”
But even thousands of miles away from Motown’s home in Detroit, the mainstreaming of blues music (which was morphing into R&B) was having an impact. Black musicians didn’t need to travel the chitlin’ circuit to find work anymore, and blues music wasn’t just a niche interest.
As the elder generation died off in Sanford, Fields says, people weren’t jamming on back porches as much anymore. The stream of traveling musicians dried up. The old clubs and juke joints shuttered.
“Motown kind of killed the blues in a way,” he says. At least in small towns like Sanford.
In 1972, though, a blues revival of sorts began in a makeshift home studio in rural Lake County. Daytona native Robert Greenlee, who had played in high-school bands with Gregg and Duane Allman, had returned to his Florida home that year and turned his attention to music. He graduated from Yale in
1967 and received a bid from the Miami Dolphins to draft him for the team. He rejected the offer. Instead, Greenlee went to law school briefly. But his heart wasn’t really in it.
“Bob realized that he wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer and dropped out,” says Sonja Greenlee, widowed after Bob Greenlee died of pancreatic cancer in 2004. “He formed a New Haven-based band named Jim Ground and played all over the Northeast.” When they were done touring, Greenlee and bandmate Foster MacKenzie III (aka Root Boy Slim, whom we profiled in our May 7 cover story, “The legend of Root Boy Slim”), would return to Greenlee’s Lake County home and record in his studio. MacKenzie played with Greenlee in a college band called Young Prince LaLa and the Midnight Creepers, and later the two formed Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, which became an underground blues sensation. “MacKenzie brought those tapes back to his hometown in Washington, D.C., where WHFS-FM 102.3, an independent alternative rock station, began to play them,” she says. Some of the songs, like “Boogie Till You Puke” and “You Broke My Mood Ring,” became cult hits despite (or perhaps because of) their unusual approach to songwriting.
Mrs. Greenlee says the songs her husband wrote with MacKenzie were surprisingly direct and brash. They covered substance abuse, mental instability (MacKenzie struggled with both substance abuse and mental illness) and politics.
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