Dick Waterman: A Life in Blues, Tammy L. Turner

Dick Waterman: A Life in Blues, Tammy L. Turner, University Press of Mississippi

Dick Waterman is the one who “discovered” Son House in the early ‘60s. He helped revive his and other older bluesmen’s careers and promoted them with vigour and honesty. Tammy Turner’s biography brings Waterman’s career in first blues promotion and then photography to life vibrantly, weaving story after story effortlessly in a narrative that is, quite simply, a joy to read.

Turner spent years gathering her material before writing the book, and the care and depth of her research is manifest on every page. It was, it seems, something of a labour of love – and when you come to understand the sort of man Waterman was, you understand why.

When others were half-heartedly promoting and under-paying rediscovered bluesmen in the 1960s, Waterman always went the extra mile for his clients, taking account of their age and frailties in travel and accommodation arrangements, and making sure they were paid properly. His artists, some of whom, like Robert Pete Williams, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mance Lipscomb, were illiterate, came to trust him implicitly. He was fiercely loyal to them, and in return expected them to be loyal as well. If a promoter for some reason failed to pay, Waterman would make sure his artist got paid from his own funds before pursuing the promoter for the outstanding amount. On the other hand, he didn’t take kindly to an artist – for example, Luther Allison – going behind his back and trying to make bookings directly.

The tale of the young Waterman and his friends, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls, jumping into a red Volkswagen Beetle and driving from New York to Memphis, stocked up with a large reel-to-reel recorder in the hopes of recording some willing blues musician they might encounter, in order to seek out Son House, is the stuff of blues legend and is told engagingly and in some detail by Turner. Son House remained a friend and a client of Waterman’s over the next ten years until his retirement due to ill health in 1974. Waterman promoted House’s new career tirelessly, always believing in his greatness as a bluesman, despite his client’s alcoholism.

Dick Waterman & Son House

During the sixties and seventies, Dick Waterman managed the careers and booked gigs for a veritable who’s who of blues greats, including Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGhee and Maria Muldaur. He counted luminaries like Skip James, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts and others as friends and, in a business with more than its fair share of wheeling and dealing, Waterman was pretty much universally respected as a decent, honest man more interested in his clients and the music than seeking his own advantage. Turner presents us with a man who genuinely wanted to promote the careers of a number of aging bluesmen, helping them “achieve unprecedented recognition and, in varying degrees, great income, which benefited the lives of them and their families.”

As well as Son House, Waterman’s other major client was Bonnie Raitt, whom he encountered as a college student just beginning to take an interest in the blues. He managed her early career and booked gigs for her for many years until the mid ‘80s. He was responsible for introducing her to Sippie Wallace, with whom Raitt struck a friendship and performed, and facilitated Raitt’s desire to offer older blues musicians more opportunities to perform.

In the early part of his career, Waterman had taken many photographs of artists – some of these iconic images are reproduced in a section of the book – and had a vast archive of historically important images and negatives. When his work as a manager and booking agent had wound down during the 1990’s Waterman turned once again to his photography, though he regretted not having used his camera in the twenty years previous. In 2003 he published a book of his most iconic works entitled Between Midnight and Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archives

Dick Waterman was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 2000, testimony to the contribution he had made over many years. He was invited by B.B. King to write a book on his life, which was published in 2005, with great success, and also to his eightieth birthday party the same year. King was fulsome in his praise of the man: “Dick Waterman was a big help to people that are in the blues, especially the kind that myself and a few others played…I think he had class. I just say I respect him and think highly of him for things he did and how he did them.”

Turner has done us a great service in shining a light both on Dick Waterman’s life and, in turn, on the reawakening of the blues from the 1960s on. It’s one of the most enjoyable music books I’ve read and deserves to be in the hands of every blues fan, indeed, of every music fan.